Home Education Magazine
November-December 2000 - Articles
Is Homeschooling Sexist? - Laurae Lyster-Mensh
There is an elephant in the room that many homeschooling families don't want to talk about. As a sometimes defensive minority we may think: Why bring up a potentially divisive issue?
But it may be another generation before homeschooling matures enough as a way of life that we feel comfortable discussing our differences. We prefer to present a united front to the world. Yet the issue of women's roles in homeschooling is too important to leave our children to sort out later. Our daughters, in particular, deserve a more thoughtful approach.
For many homeschooling families, the question of gender roles is not at issue. When families choose to homeschool out of religious conviction, gender roles are often described in the teachings of their faith. Few of my devotedly Christian friends waste energy agonizing over the roles of men and women in the home - and by extension in the homeschooling. I am Jewish, and we are taught that the mother and the home are the center of religious practice and instruction. Through custom or habit, traditional cultures do not agonize over sex roles; this is a peculiarly modern and perhaps more secular angst.
But not all homeschoolers are motivated by faith and even religious homeschoolers live in a modern society into which their children will eventually go - and we hope they will thrive. So, for some families, the issue of women's roles is a nagging question.
A daughter of the seventies, I was raised to believe that I could achieve anything. I was told I had unlimited potential and it was expected that I would aim high in my career. In my family the goal was not fame or fortune, it was excellence in my chosen career. They expected great things from me.
They did not expect that I would take my travel and work experience and a Master's degree into a life of homeschooling my children. Neither did I. For most of us, this was a choice we made long after we started down different paths entirely. Now, however, our children are watching us.
There are prices to our choice to homeschool. Some are obvious and universal: We forgo a potential income and career advancement if we do return to outside work, and we work a long and unending day as full-time family members. There are other costs, though, that many of us seem unwilling to discuss.
The greatest among them is a feeling of defensiveness when we face our communities and prevailing expectations for women. Sure, most non-homeschoolers speak of their admiration for our "patience" and "dedication." But for the majority of American families, outside education is a resource that makes their lifestyle possible: two incomes, with the freedom to volunteer, to maintain clean homes, and to enjoy lunches with adults. Homeschooling threatens the assumption that doing it yourself is a waste of resources.
How this manifests itself for many of us is via a persistent over-achieving nature. We do it all and more. We make money on the side, we lead support groups, we are the Brownie leaders, the cookie makers, and we make our kids' clothes. We crave acceptance as contributors to society, and to our families. Even as we perform 18-hour jobs as domestic-instructor-cheerleader-nurse, we often still welcome our husbands home as the harder-working breadwinner.
The role of our husbands often becomes exaggerated. To make the one-income family viable he works time and a half. He recedes as a figure in our children's lives. He comes home to a spouse who is overwhelmed with the intensity of children and her expectations for herself. Very few homeschooling mothers I know don't deal with these conspiring internal conflicts at some time. We are running contrary to "progress" as it is defined by much of society. And for those of us who don't think of ourselves as defined by our gender, it is a strange position to be in.
Ironically, many homeschoolers are motivated to eschew schooling for their kids in a rejection of tradition. While some families still chooses to educate at home out of a rejection of the liberal morality of the schools, many famlies foreswear schooling for its conservative and conforming nature. For these families, inclined toward an egalitarian view of gender roles, women - and it is nearly always the mother who homeschools - have to reconcile the incongruity of taking the non-economic role in the family.
The second aspect of the homeschooling division of labor that many of us like to ignore is the message to our daughters, and our sons, yet in different ways. Like my mother before me I assure my daughter that she has unlimited potential. She is intelligent, well read, and very engaged in the world. When I tell her she can do "anything she dreams of," what am I saying? Am I telling her she can strive toward being a homeschooling mother? Am I telling her not to?
Our sons are watching us, too. They cannot fail to notice that the ones doing the homeschooling are the mothers. We have to ask ourselves what expectations this will leave them with for themselves and for their future spouses. In the workplace, will they be able to treat female co-workers as seriously as the men? What will our future daughters-in-law be in for?
Unspoken also, are the implications on decision-making that are inherent in one-wage families. Divorce, we have all witnessed, often means the end of homeschooling. Two parents who spend the majority of their time with entirely different spheres of influence can lose touch with the needs, and pressures, on the other. And it is not uncommon for homeschooling couples to differ in their commitment to the homeschooling lifestyle. When one partner earns the income for the entire family the parent at home can feel powerless and unable to make choices.
Those of us who fail to recognize that this is not a new phenomenon are either too young or not well read on the Women's Liberation Movement. Since this struggle has been waged before, is there nothing we can learn from it?
In an attempt to gain equality in a vulnerable world, women of my mother's generation fought to attain equity in pay, benefits, and advancement along with their male peers. Men, on the other hand, rarely lined up to take on the roles the mothers were leaving behind. Women's traditional work became the things you work to pay someone else to do.
Our home-based homeschooling families are the opposite of the family that is based outside the home. We not only have a parent at home, we take on the responsibility for the full care of our family at home. It cannot be treated as a coincidence that women are the overwhelming majority of the people doing that job. If we don't notice the hypocrisy, our kids will.
So, assuming we conclude this is a problem, what is to be done about it? First, we need to recognize that it exists. Then we need to ask ourselves why. Is it that fathers make better breadwinners, that mothers make better homeschoolers, or both? Do we want our children to think so?
I don't have an answer yet, but I'm glad to be forming the question. It is The side-benefits of being a homeschooling family that we look at life as a project in progress. Having faced down the "why's" and the "how's" of daily life out of the mainstream I feel ready to tackle more weighty issues.
If it is a problem that we face an exaggeration of gender role apportionment, then there are obvious solutions. Men could do more of the homeschooling, which does sometimes happen. Women could work more outside the home. Many families who choose homeschooling make a conscious downsizing of their lifestyles, not only to allow a single wage earner but also to free the spouse from permanent exile at work.
For our family, we have settled on compromises. I now work part-time in a job that my daughter accompanies me to. My husband has taken a job that offers him less than he could command but allows him to work from home and control his own schedule. We have as a family decided to minimize outside activities that don't allow us to be together. We do without some things and we buy our way out of some other things. It is a real life, and an ongoing project: not a static solution.
One more caution comes to mind when I consider the public relations aspect of being a minority. Right now, as media attention is maturing from the "what about socialization" interviews to "can this work for everyone" line of questioning we must consider the face we present to the world. Homeschoolers are not a uniform group with standardized answers. The more we talk these issues through among ourselves, the less likely we are to be divided in our common goals by private dissent.
Our children deserve our attention to the topic of gender roles. The only thing we absolutely must not do is pretend the topic does not exist.
© 2000, Laurae Lyster-Mensh
November-December 2000 - Articles
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